By any measure, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman’s road traveled is different. As is the man himself.
When I wrote of him in 2016, he was running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, a candidate like few seen in American, let alone Pennsylvania, politics.
I wrote he doesn’t look like a politician, act like a politician, work a room or talk in platitudes. He just shows up and makes sense.
He didn’t win. But he made an impact that set up his win last week. He’s now the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, paired with Gov. Wolf in November.
And, despite common thinking that LG candidates make no difference, can only hurt and not help in a general election, I’d argue that Fetterman helps Wolf.
Because there’s nothing common about Fetterman. And because he’s known to make a difference.
Yes, his primary win was fueled by incumbent Lt. Gov. Mike Stack’s incinerating his own reelection chances. You know the story: boorish behavior by Stack and wife toward state employees and state troopers assigned to their care and security, leading Wolf to strip the Stacks of the bulk of such taxpayer-provided service.
So, an office that gets no attention got plenty, and Stack got four primary opponents, including Philly’s Nina Ahmad, who outspent the field.
Yet Fetterman won the five-way race with 40 percent of the statewide vote, rolling up impressive margins in (home-base) southwestern counties: 77 percent in Allegheny; 73 in Westmoreland; 71 in Beaver; 70 in Washington.
I’m betting what comes next is both interesting and fun.
Fetterman and Wolf are something of an odd couple, especially in looks and style.
Fetterman’s size ( 6-foot-8, 300-plus pounds), tats, shaved head and trademark black work clothes clash with Wolf’s professorial appearance and business-blah attire.
(Though Wolf’s Jeep sorta saves him.)
If you saw photos of their post-Election Day lunch at a York County diner, you get it. One social media wag wrote: “Your dad and your cool uncle.”
Speaking of the lunch, jokes circulated that Wolf would order an arugula salad, and Fetterman (à la John Candy’s classic The Greater Outdoors) the Old ’96er, a 96-ounce prime aged beef steak.
Fetterman’s physical presence evokes such reaction. And more.
If elected, would he turn the LG’s stone mansion into a food co-op, as per his efforts to help feed Braddock’s poor? No. Says he wouldn’t live in the mansion. He, his wife and three young kids still would live in Braddock. He’d commute (200 miles); maybe rent a Harrisburg apartment.
Would he get the security detail Stack lost? Doesn’t want it. Besides, look at him. He is security.
What about presiding over the Senate, where men are required to wear jackets? Says he owns two suits.
I wonder if one is chain mail.
And I know we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There is a November election: Wolf/Fetterman vs. Scott Wagner/Jeff Bartos. But it starts with Wolf the odds-on favorite. And Fetterman adds to Wolf’s odds.
At 48, with graduate degrees in business and public policy from UConn and Harvard, he’s the four-times-elected mayor of a small former steel town outside Pittsburgh. It’s majority African American. More than a third of its people live below the poverty line.
Since taking office, Fetterman’s efforts (and those of his wife, Gisele, who opened a free surplus-clothing store) attracted national note and helped Braddock begin to come back in what Pittsburgh media calls “stunning ways.”
That, plus Fetterman’s longtime mantra, “No community deserves to be abandoned,” is a potent message in many parts of the state.
Also, his appeal to young people, Bernie Sanders fans (Sanders endorsed him), urban hipsters, and others means he can bring out voters that otherwise might sit out a gubernatorial race.
Fetterman sees his campaign role as deferential to Wolf. His sole job, he says, is to promote the governor’s reelection.
But he also says helping strapped communities is “important … that’s how I’ll always feel. It’s always been part of my DNA.”
It’s also part of the road he’s traveled. If it takes him to his second office – one, like the first, with little impact, depending upon who occupies it – it’ll be interesting to see if he (again) can make a difference.